What to do if you hit a deer
When Jessica Mundall sees an animal on the side of the road, there’s a decent chance it will end up inside her freezer.
The 26-year-old is one of hundreds of Idahoans who take advantage of the state’s roadkill salvage laws, which allow individuals to harvest whole carcasses or parts of animals. Across the state, Idahoans have harvested more than 200 roadkill animals in 2019 alone.
“What’s great about Idaho, our salvage laws are very, very simple,” Mundall said. “(It’s legal to salvage) roadkill animals, any species that’s not protected.” Similar laws differ from state to state.
Mundall, who works at Idaho Fish and Game as an office specialist in enforcement, wasn’t always keen on the idea. An Arizona native, she first heard about Idaho’s law after moving to Boise in 2017.
“I never (salvaged) roadkill, and my first couple of months here, I thought it was gross,” she said. “But our family relies on wild game. So it was unfortunate when we weren’t able to hunt this year, but salvaging gave us a chance to fill our freezer.”
A lifelong hunter, angler and trapper, she was already well-versed in field dressing and butchering animals. Since she began salvaging roadkill in 2018, Mundall has harvested three mule deer and several other species of non-game animals.
No animal is too small or undesirable to use, she said. Coyotes can be salvaged for their fur or for skulls and paws, which some people collect or make into trinkets akin to a lucky rabbit’s foot. Charlie Justus, a conservation officer for Fish and Game’s Southwest region, said he receives at least one salvage report per day, including ones for skunks, porcupine and badgers.
Mundall has collected roadkill beaver and raccoons for their pelts, relishing the opportunity to inspect the more unusual animals up close.
She’s become accustomed to defending the practice.
“People have this stigma around roadkill, thinking it’s gross, it’s dirty,” she said. “But it’s the same animal, it just died a different way.”
The logistics of roadkill salvage
Mundall said the first rule to salvaging roadkill is to be smart about it: Have a good sense of what’s safe to eat and what’s simply too far gone. In one instance, Mundall was minutes behind a motorist who hit a mule deer. But in most cases it’s necessary to use other clues to figure out how long the animal has been dead.
“If it’s been minutes, the animal is still warm, rigor mortis hasn’t set in yet,” Mundall said.
An animal that’s slightly bloated probably has been dead for a few hours. If the carcass has been picked at by scavengers or is very stiff, it’s best to steer clear, she said.
“If you walk up to an animal and it’s hard as a rock, you kind of know it’s been sitting there a while,” Mundall said.
Winter is the safest season for salvaging roadkill. The chilly weather and ice or snow act as nature’s freezer, widening the window in which it’s safe to harvest the animal.
Mundall said winter roadkill can be safe to salvage for as long as four days. In the summertime, you’re lucky to have a few hours. Roadkill is also more plentiful in the winter. As animals move down from the mountains to find food, they’re more likely to have fatal encounters with vehicles.
She doesn’t have to rely entirely on luck to find animals, and she said she doesn’t go out specifically searching for roadside critters.
“Am I actively looking? Am I driving around (in search of animals)? No,” Mundall said. “I have friends that know that I have no problem going out by the side of the road (and salvaging an animal.)”
Friends will give her a heads-up if they spot a fresh-looking carcass.
“There are a lot of people salvaging. I’ll get a text in the morning and by the time I get off work, (the animal) is gone,” she said.
Justus said most salvagers take the entire animal, though it’s legal to take only antlers or ivory teeth.
Within 72 hours of harvesting an animal, you must file a report with Fish and Game. Certain animals such as moose, wolves and mountain goats must be checked by the agency. Salvage reports can be filed via phone, on the Fish and Game website or even in person at a Fish and Game office.
“When someone fills out a salvage report, they are given a ‘tag’ for that animal which legally allows them to take it to a taxidermist or meat processor,” she said.
Failure to do so could result in a citation, though that’s up to the discretion of individual Fish and Game officers.
Justus pointed out that some animals are off-limits for salvage, including a long list of protected nongame birds and threatened or endangered species such as Canada lynx.
For the sake of efficiency, Mundall has started keeping some simple salvaging tools in her vehicle at all times: a sharp knife, some paracord, a tarp and some trash bags.
“A buddy is always helpful,” she joked.
So is a bit of discretion. When possible, Mundall will move a roadkill carcass out of view of the road. She said the sight of someone butchering an animal can startle and distract drivers, creating a potential hazard. She once had a driver call the enforcement office at Fish and Game — where she works — to report her.
Mundall warned that, unlike in most hunting situations, some parts of the animal may be unusable thanks to the trauma of being hit by a vehicle. Shattered limbs or split intestines should always be avoided.
“If it’s even remotely questionable, at that point drag it away (from the roadside). Nature will recycle it into the earth,” she said.
Reuse, recycle ... roadkill?
Salvaging is something of a spin on the three Rs of waste: reduce the amount of unsightly roadkill, reuse the animal’s meat and recycle the unusable parts to decompose naturally.
“It helps in more ways than one,” Mundall said.
It helps keep roadways clean, she pointed out, and keeps scavenging animals from becoming a traffic hazard.
“It’s all a matter of respecting the animal and the public and what (passersby) see,” Mundall said.
For hunters, it can even be an opportunity to fine-tune butchering skills or practice a new technique. And for Fish and Game, it’s been a huge time saver.
“Some folks hit (an animal) and have no desire to take it,” Justus said. “They leave it by the side of the road and the next guy comes along and salvages it. It’s been nice to not have to (send officers) on every dead animal.”
Mundall said she hopes people will begin to see the variety of uses and change their perceptions on roadkill harvesting.
“I think it’s possible (to change the stigma),” she said. “I don’t know what created the connection of roadkill equals gross.”
It could be that the animals most motorists see on the roadside are the ones that are already too far gone to salvage.
“Probably most people see that rotten deer, that bloated animal on the side of the road and think of rotten, sour meat,” Mundall said.
So person by person, she’s trying to change minds. In January, she invited a friend to process meat from a salvaged mule deer. She prepared Rocky Mountain oysters, backstrap steaks and bone marrow on toast. The friend later took home some cuts of venison.
“He went from never eating a salvage to now wanting to know more about it,” she said. “He returned the next day and made my husband and I homemade deer burgers.”
Salvaged meat can be donated, too, Mundall pointed out. On Jan. 25, a herd of elk was hit by a train in Southeast Idaho, killing 31 elk. Fish and Game officers were able to salvage 10 of the animals and distribute them to locals. Some food banks will accept donated meat, too.
Though not every salvage is a boon of usable meat, Mundall said she finds the experience fulfilling, no matter the outcome.
“Being able to take one thing (from an animal) gives it a second purpose — even a single antler,” she said.
“That animal didn’t intend to end its life rotting on the side of the road. We’re responsible for its death, as a whole. And we’re responsible to make use of it.”